Pakistan hands over Indian pilot in 'gesture of peace' as tensions simmer

Pakistani officials brought a captured Indian pilot to a border crossing with India to be handed over just before 9 p.m. local time on Friday.

Cross-border attacks across disputed Kashmir continue for 4th day

Indian people hold a banner with a welcome message for returning pilot Wing Cmdr. Abhinandan Varthaman, who was handed over by Pakistan on Friday. (Raminder Pal Singh/EFE/EPA)

Pakistan handed over a captured Indian Air Force pilot to Indian officials at a border crossing on Friday, a "gesture of peace" by Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan aimed at defusing a dramatic escalation between the nuclear-armed neighbours over the disputed region of Kashmir.

The pilot, identified as Wing Cmdr. Abhinandan Varthaman, was taken in a convoy that set out from the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore to the border crossing at Wagah. Varthaman was escorted by military vehicles with soldiers, their weapons drawn.

On the Indian side of the border, Indian policemen lined the road as a group of cheering Indian residents from the area waved India's flag and held up a huge garland of flowers to welcome him back.

"The nation is proud of your exemplary courage," Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in a tweet.

Indian officials said Varthaman was in good spirits and would undergo a medical checkup.

"This checkup is mandated particularly because the officer has had to eject from an airplane," Air Vice Marshal R.G.K. Kapoor told reporters

Watch as Pakistan hands over the captured Indian pilot:

Wing Cmdr. Abhinandan Varthaman, who was shot down and captured by Pakistan, was handed over to India at the Wagah border crossing. 0:48

In a message aired on Pakistani television, Varthaman was seen in his green flight suit saying he was rescued by two Pakistani military personnel when he ejected and found himself in Pakistani-controlled territory surrounded by a group of angry residents. It was not clear when he recorded the statement, but it clearly happened while he was in the custody of the Pakistani military.

Khan announced in parliament on Thursday that the pilot would be returned, calling the release "a goodwill gesture."

But India made clear there could be no conditions attached to the pilot's return, and that the latest escalation had changed its strategy. Going forward, Indian officials said they would strike targets, including those inside Pakistani territory, if officials receive intelligence of planned attacks. 

Despite the pilot's return, the path forward was uncertain for two countries that have faced off for years along the Kashmir boundary known as the Line of Control, in one of the world's most volatile regions.

"Let us hope this momentum created by the release of Wing Cmdr. Abhinandan Varthaman translates into something long-term in terms of securing peace," said Amitabh Mattoo, a professor of disarmament studies at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University. "We will have to wait and see."

Earlier, Pakistan's civil aviation authority issued a statement saying all domestic and international flights will be allowed to and from the cities of Karachi, Islamabad, Peshawar and Quetta.

It said other airports, including the one in Lahore, will remain closed until March 4.

Islamabad closed its air space on Wednesday after saying that Pakistan's military shot down two Indian warplanes and captured a pilot, escalating tensions between the rivals. The closures snarled air traffic.

Blistering cross-border attacks across the disputed Himalayan Kashmir region continued for a fourth straight day, even as the neighbours seek to defuse the most serious confrontation in two decades.

Tens of thousands of Indian and Pakistani soldiers face off along the disputed border. Tensions have been running high since Indian aircraft crossed into Pakistan on Tuesday carrying out what India called a pre-emptive strike against militants blamed for a Feb. 14 suicide attack in Indian Kashmir that killed more than 40 troops.

Indians eagerly awaited the handover of a downed pilot at the Indian-Pakistani border crossing at Wagah. (Prabhjot Gill/Associated Press)

World leaders have scrambled to head off an all-out war on the Asian subcontinent. U.S. President Donald Trump in Hanoi on Thursday said he had been involved in seeking to de-escalate the conflict.

"I think hopefully that's going to be coming to an end," Trump said, without elaborating. "It's been going on for a long time — decades and decades. There's a lot of dislike, unfortunately, so we've been in the middle trying to help them both out, see if we can get some organization and some peace, and I think probably that's going to be happening."

On Friday, Adel al-Jubeir, Saudi Arabia's minister of state for foreign affairs, was expected in Islamabad with an urgent message from the kingdom's powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

India bans Kashmiri political, religious group

India banned the largest political and religious group in Indian-controlled Kashmir in an ongoing crackdown on activists seeking the end of Indian rule in the disputed region.

Authorities imposed a security lockdown in several parts of the region on Friday, including in downtown areas of the main city of Srinagar, in anticipation of protests against Indian rule. Police and soldiers, carrying automatic rifles and wearing riot gear, erected iron barricades and lay razor wire on roads and intersections to cut off neighbourhoods.

They patrolled streets in Srinagar and imposed restrictions around the city's main mosque, Jamia Masjid, prohibiting congregational Friday prayers.

Indian paramilitary troopers stand guard as they block a road in Srinagar. (Tauseef Mustafa/AFP/Getty Images)

India's Home Ministry issued the five-year ban on Jama'at-e-Islami, or JeI, on Thursday night, accusing the group of being an "unlawful association" and supporting militancy in the region.

Police have arrested at least 400 activists and leaders, mainly from Jama'at-e-Islami, which seeks self-determination for the entire Himalayan region, which is divided between India and Pakistan but claimed by both in its entirety.

Meanwhile, two rebels, a paramilitary officer and a counterinsurgency officer were killed in a gun battle Friday in the northwestern Handwara area, police said. Five soldiers were also wounded.

"If the unlawful activities of JeI are not curbed and controlled immediately, it is likely to escalate its subversive activities ... by destabilizing the government established by law," India's Home Ministry said in a statement.

The group's head, Abdul Hamid Fayaz, dozens of its top leaders and at least 300 members have been arrested since last week. Some of the arrests occurred Thursday night in raids by police after the ban, officials said.

Jama'at-e-Islami, created in 1942, has been banned twice previously and runs hundreds of schools, charities, orphanages, public libraries and reading rooms with a strong cadre base across the region. It participated in Indian elections several times before 1989, when an armed rebellion against Indian rule erupted in the Himalayan region.

Since then, the group has been seen as the ideological force behind the region's largest indigenous rebel group, Hizbul Mujahideen.

Overnight shelling reported

Residents of the Pakistani border town of Chikhoti reported heavy shelling overnight and Friday morning. More than 200 people had fled to a military organized camp about 20 kilometres away from the border.

Kashmir has been divided but claimed in its entirety by both India and Pakistan since almost immediately after the two countries' creation in 1947. They have fought three wars, two directly dealing with the disputed region.

The violence this week marked the most serious escalation of the long-simmering conflict since 1999, when Pakistan's military sent a ground force into Indian-controlled Kashmir at Kargil. That year also saw an Indian fighter jet shoot down a Pakistani naval aircraft, killing all 16 on board.

This latest wave of tensions between the two rivals began after the militant group Jaish-e-Mohammad claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing on Indian paramilitary forces. India long has accused Pakistan of cultivating such militant groups to attack it. Pakistan has said it was not involved in that attack and was ready to help New Delhi in the investigation.

With files from Reuters


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